A letter sent in 1963 to Pope Paul VI by a senior American priest who outlined the "problem of the problem priest" suggests that the Vatican was fully aware – or at least should have been aware – of the extent of sexual abuse within the US Catholic Church almost five decades ago.
The missive, unearthed and made public yesterday by lawyers representing victims of alleged sexual abuse in Los Angeles, argued even then that the best solution for dealing with priests found to have violated young men and boys was to defrock them, rather than shuffle them to other dioceses, as was the practice of the Catholic Church for so long.
The Rev Gerald Fitzgerald penned the letter at the behest of Pope Paul VI after meeting him in Rome to discuss cases of abuse in the US. Fitzgerald was a former head of the New Mexico-based Servants of the Holy Paraclete, a religious congregation of men dedicated to ministry to priests with personal difficulties.
"Personally, I am not sanguine of the return of priests to active duty, who have been addicted to abnormal practices, especially sins with the young," Fitzgerald wrote. "Where there is indication of incorrigibility, because of the tremendous scandal given, I would most earnestly recommend total laicisation. I say 'total'... because when these men are taken before civil authority, the non-Catholic world definitely blames the discipline of celibacy for the perversion of these men."
The letter has surfaced just as the Vatican is striking back at what it has called unfair coverage of the burgeoning paedophilia scandal by US media outlets. A lawyer for abuse victims in Kentucky has filed a lawsuit against the Vatican that could seek to force Pope Benedict XVI to testify in court.
Partly in response to the Kentucky filing, the head of the Vatican's legal tribunal, Giuseppe dalla Torre, told an Italian newspaper that Pope Benedict, as a head of state, had legal immunity and could not be called to testify in any court on this or on any other matter.
Another senior official, Cardinal William Levada, an American who leads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, meanwhile singled out The New York Times for its coverage of the scandal, saying it "lacks fairness" in its reports, including those dealing with allegations that Pope Benedict failed to act to stop the abuse of deaf boys in Wisconsin before he ascended to the papacy.
Cardinal Levada noted that his predecessor was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict, who had forced through new laws to punish priests found guilty of abuse. "I ask the Times to reconsider its attack mode about Pope Benedict XVI and give the world a more balanced view of a leader it can and should count on," Cardinal Levada wrote in an article on the Vatican website. "We owe Pope Benedict a great debt of gratitude for introducing the procedures that have helped the Church to take action in the face of the scandal of priestly sexual abuse of minors."
Lawyers for abuse victims in California sought to underscore the significance of the 1963 letter to Pope Paul VI. "The letter proves Vatican officials knew about clergy abuse decades ago and should have done more to protect children," said Anthony DeMarco.
However, officials for the Catholic archdiocese in Los Angeles said it was highly unlikely that Pope Paul VI ever even saw Fitzgerald's letter. "The fact is the prevailing ideas at the time about how to deal with abusive behaviour were not adequate," said a spokesman. "Clearly, society and the Church have evolved new understandings of what causes sexually abusive behaviour and how to deal with it."